To the extent that Elia Kazan is known at all to today’s movie-going audience, it is most likely as the fragile-looking old man who caused all the fuss at the 1999 Oscar ceremony. Controversy erupted over the Academy’s decision to bestow an honorary award on Kazan, whom many had never forgiven for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and naming former associates in the Communist Party. "I think I can just…slip away," Kazan said, accepting his Oscar as half the audience stood for an ovation and the rest sat on their hands.
Though it predates the Academy Award fracas, Richard Schickel’s 1995 documentary Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey seems at least partially intended as an attempt to dismiss these troubling questions of betrayal by setting the focus back on Kazan’s work. Taking the form of an extended interview with the director, interspersed with clips of his films and some perhaps overly reverent narration by Eli Wallach, the film is almost as interesting for what it omits as what it presents.
Starting out as an actor – by his own admission not a great one – Kazan came of age in the New York theater of the 1930’s, as part of a communal group of passionately left-wing, socially conscious artists. Consequently, his early efforts as a film director (Gentlemen’s Agreement, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) have a stagebound quality that he attempted to shed with the more action-oriented Panic in the Streets. Despite his efforts, Kazan would never be known as a visual stylist; his strengths as a director have their roots in the Stanislavskian method of acting he helped pioneer on Broadway.
His greatest accomplishment in this regard is his discovery of Marlon Brando, who Kazan first cast in the stage production of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, then in the film version. But terrific performances dominate many of the director’s films – James Dean in East of Eden, Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd – even as the movies themselves have a tendency to be overly literal and "message"-y.
Kazan proves a thoroughly charismatic and likable presence as he discusses his pictures. His enthusiasm is infectious, even for lesser known works such as Baby Doll and America, America – his personal favorite. But don’t expect much enlightenment when it comes to his most infamous moment in the public eye. Kazan’s testimony before the HUAC is glossed over in one or two sentences, and is couched in terms favorable to the director’s perspective. He was "forced to testify" (Oh, really? One of the most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood?) against people who had already been named anyway (So that makes it okay? If anything, it reveals him as even more of a coward, since it renders his testimony essentially meaningless except as an act of self-preservation).
On the Waterfront, arguably the director’s masterpiece, has been widely interpreted as a rationalization for informing, and Kazan doesn’t dispute this (though he says "it wasn’t the central thing to me"). But as good a movie as it is, it’s a poor justification for Kazan’s actions – a stacked-deck defense if there ever was one. Not many people are likely to be opposed to someone testifying against mob corruption in labor unions (except maybe whoever is running the Gambino family this week – John Gotti’s pet chimp Mr. Chuckles, I think). There’s no equating Terry Malloy’s heroic actions with Elia Kazan’s self-serving testimony against the Hollywood Ten, which was hardly the crushing blow against Communism his defenders would like to imagine.
Politics aside, Schickel’s documentary is a generally absorbing look at a filmmaker who helped to birth a new style of acting in American movies. History will decide whether Kazan’s accomplishments outweigh his dirty deeds, but whatever the case, Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey will serve as a crucial piece of evidence when the time comes for that judgment to be rendered.